Conscious consumerism: does buying ever count as aid?

TOMS shoes have come under intense scrutiny. At face value it is a product that is sold and helps to raise funds for its international development effort . However, critics claim that it propagates irresponsible ideologies about feel good aid, replaces local economies and causes depressions in national markets. Here, Amira Aleem investigates.

The term ‘social enterprise’ is frequently thrown about when talking about any business with a social mission or charity with a revenue generating arm. Brands now cannot afford not to engage with the social sector increasingly blurring the lines between profit and not-for-profit making structures.

This becomes especially interesting when a brand decides to sell a product, based on a ‘social’ objective. Selling a product that aims to make customers ‘feel-good’ about their purchasing begs the question of, whether buying these products actually creates meaningful change, or is just another clever marketing technique? Several studies have categorically shown that the humiliation and exclusion of poverty are fundamental to our understanding of global development. Selling products that provide handouts in developing countries by selling to consumers in developed countries is something that is being hotly debated as going against everything international aid is working towards.

One of the biggest and most widely attacked example of a social enterprise is TOMS shoes. The distinctive fabric shoes have sold over 45 million pairs worldwide, and promise ‘One for One’ wherein, for every pair bought, they will donate one to a ‘child in need’.

©Jordan Williams/Creative Commons License

©Jordan Williams/Creative Commons License


As Johnathan Favini writes, TOMS shoes fall into the typical aid trap of providing fish but not training fishermen.

In the non-profit world, competing for grants and funding is time-consuming and difficult. By having a revenue generating model that appeals to a wide customer base .TOMS shoes operates outside of the fear and unpreditcablite world of donor conditionality. They are able to support their development efforts solely through the profits from their core product. And while this has its own complications, it would be naïve to say there don’t exist corrupt, unregulated NGOs that do far worse.

‘Buy one give one’

The ‘buy one give one model comes under the most scruntiy and seems to rub people up the wrong way the most. Critics widely agree that TOMS shoes propagate all the stereotypical notions of the rich Western countries providing aid to the poor, impoverished counterparts. TOMS shoes quite simply falls under the category of bad aid – aid that fundamentally causes damage to the people it is aimed toward because it can cause more damage than the good it does. By having some shoes in a community have shoes and others who do not, TOMS may cause ill-feelings and insecurity amongst communities. It can also undermine the ability of local shoe makers to have a market to sell to because customers are given free handouts of shoes.

Despite these critiques, this flawed and post-colonial civilision mission logic is not the real problem. instead, recklessly providing handouts to developing countries as opposed to building capacity for infrastrucute causes long term economic and social destablilisation. By giving communities in-kind donations, it undermines the ability of the local shoe producers to build strong resilient businesses themselves. Of the 70 plus countries in which it donates shoes, TOMS shoes only produces in Argentina, Ethiopia and predominantly China. This means that although good are entering the economy, the related jobs, wealth, and stability that comes with a business is not.

©Mr Thinktank/Creative Commons License

©Mr Thinktank/Creative Commons License


Have they changed and is it enough?

To their credit, TOMS shoes do appear to have taken some of these criticisms on board, developing and refining their models. TOMS eyewear, for example, provides cash for medical check-ups and eye tests and avoids the handout model. the company has now begun maternal health, water and sanitation programmes that are run of the profits of TOMS shoes.
But they could do more, and thinking outside the traditional liberal traditional market approach may be the only way to really do this and bring about long term ussutaible positive change.

This year, Anshu Gupta won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. His organisation GOONJ has been wildly successful in creating an alternative ‘cashless economy’, where cloth is exchanged for work. The initial thought for GOONJ came when, Anshu Gupta first saw a naked body being taken to be buried, having died in the cold of Delhi’s winter.

Anshu started a ‘Robin Hood’ model, where he redirected excess cloth from wealthy houses to poorer households. He noticed that by providing cloth to poorer households, it provided them with a valuable resource that they needed for clothing, and warmth. This increased the available amount of money the families had, as they were now not spending on cloth. In over a decade of work, Anshu has expanded those efforts to pay people cloth for work, and to help rebuild disaster hit communities by using cloth to recompense workers for rebuilding roads and infrastructure.Although TOMS definitely has some flaws, it is worth remembering that Anshu Gupta did not begin GOONJ by trying to build a game-changing alternative economy. He started by donating cloth from the rich to the poor.

When compared to brands like Primark or TopShop which are notorious for labour rights abuses, TOMS shoes comes at an intersection of reshaping the corporate focus. The Ethical Consumer ranks them one of the best amongst mainstream producers. They have entered the apparel industry and are actively trying to reshape it, responding to critiques where necessary. Also, as Favini comments, TOMS shoes has expanded the market of donors by integrating them into the system.

People want shoes that are distinctive and TOMS leverages that to fundraise. By making international aid more mainstream it opens up an entire new market of awareness. The effectiveness of TOMS can only be gauged after several years of work, when we will begin to see the effects of it on the ground. Although it is important to be critical of aid because it brings about the kind of conversations that better practices, being overly judgemental of anyone attempting to shift the balance, may be dangerous in itself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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